A Story of Love and Self-Discovery Told In Two Acts (Plus The One In Between)
In the English port town where the Mayflower once launched toward uncharted territory across the Atlantic, an American woman is waiting for a chance to explore what’s right beyond her window. It’s 2020, and even though her journey to this place began — as she once described it — “like a fairy tale,” something happened along the way. Stuck between some strange page and the chapter she hoped to be living by this point, the world has stopped for her. The story she was living was put on the shelf, and another narrative began in its place.
Call this new novel “Love In The Time Of Covid.” Or call it “Courtney Perrou: The Years After The College Years.” Or just call it “life,” and consider that a blanket title explaining the troubling plot points faced by the aforementioned Courtney Perrou, the protagonist who now felt challenged to churn lemons into lemonade in the land of tea and crumpets.
The story of Courtney’s life began 23 years ago. But, to tell this tale, perhaps it makes most sense to flash forward further into her journey, to a time when she first stepped across the ocean and met the man of her dreams on the other side of it; to a time when the world seemed to turn the pages for her.
♦ Act I ♦
In 2016, Courtney was a communications major at Saginaw Valley State University – the same school where her mother, Dionne Beelman, once graduated – when an opportunity to study abroad led her to live in Prague for two semesters.
“I came from a tiny rural town, and so making this leap was the drastic and crazy change that I think everyone needs,” the Pinconning native said. “It pushed me outside my comfort zone. This experience made me independent, it made me confident, and as cheesy as it sounds, I got lost and found myself. Being anonymous in a big foreign city really made me realize who I was.”
The overseas adventure was exciting enough to write home about, but then he stepped into the story. During an excursion across the Czech Republic, Courtney first caught the eye of Jason Probert, a royal marine commando with the British Armed Forces who happened to be visiting the Central European nation at the same time.
“The moment we stumbled into each other, we both felt the sparks,” she said. “I knew I met my soulmate instantly.”
Jason was scheduled to return home to England the following day. To stay a little longer with his newfound fellow traveler, he canceled his flight. And when it was time to board his substitute flight, he canceled again. Then again.
During his extended stay in Prague, the couple shared their first kiss on Charles Bridge, a 15th century-built European landmark. It was a moment that would play into their story again one day.
Eventually, Jason boarded a flight home. So did Courtney, to Michigan. Before their departure, they made a promise: That the time and the time zones that separated them would eventually not … when the time was right.
“It would have been so much easier breaking up and calling him my ‘European fling,’ but that’s how we knew what we had was real,” she said. “We loved each other so much, we were willing to go through the pains of the distance.”
And so he continued to serve overseas. And she continued to pursue her studies at SVSU, excelling in programs including as a member of the university’s forensics team.
The couple for months made plans to live together. Then, after she graduated from SVSU in August 2019, they followed through on their promise. Courtney immediately moved to Plymouth, England, near Jason’s station with the military.
It was an thrilling time for Courtney. The American expatriate was excited to explore her new surroundings; her new home. Two months after settling in, Jason promised her their first vacation across the country. Then one of those “fairy tale” moments happened.
What Courtney didn’t know about the trip was that, at the end of it, Jason carefully choreographed a surprise getaway to the place they first met: Prague. He intended to ask her one of the most important questions of his — and their — life, all at the site of their first kiss on Charles Bridge.
The scene played out through the lens of a photographer covertly hired by Jason to document the whole thing. The camera shutter secretly snapped as she turned to find Jason on one knee, waiting with a proposal of a lifetime.
“Will you marry me?”
She said yes. Tears soaked her cheeks.
“The amount of thought and love he put into this proposal makes my younger self — who used to dream about this moment — so proud to marry someone who makes all my fantasies come true,” she said.
The couple began the early stages of planning a wedding that would include family and friends from both sides of the ocean.
In a Shakespeare-ian play, what happened next might be considered typical second act fare. Nature presented an obstacle – the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically – that paused much of the world’s affairs, including Courtney’s integration into her new surroundings as well as the dream wedding she hoped to experience. Suddenly, the pages to the book of her new, exciting life stopped turning.
“We were stuck,” Courtney said.
♦ An Act of Intermission ♦
To this day, friends from back in the states ask Courtney her impression of England as a place of residence.
“I answer, ‘I have no idea, really,’” she said. “We are on our third lockdown here, so I haven’t been able to judge how the U.K. is.”
Less than six months after her move to Plymouth, the virus swept across Europe and then the world. With restrictions in place to keep people socially distant, Courtney found it nearly impossible to integrate socially into her new community, leaving her feeling like a stranger in a strange land. She couldn’t even get behind the wheel of a car to treat herself to a tour of the town because she did not have enough time to take a driver’s training test before the pandemic caused applications to back up for months. As a substitute for experiencing England on her feet, she binge-watched Netflix’s British royal family drama, “The Crown,” as a way to study English culture.
This was not how she imagined life in England.
To complicate matters, she couldn’t return home to visit her native Michigan, as she had planned before her move across the Atlantic months earlier. In 2020, Courtney on three occasions booked flights to the United States. Because of ever-evolving pandemic-related restrictions, she never even entered an airport terminal.
“Our three flights have either been canceled completely or I was able to fly but Jason wouldn’t be able to,” she said. “At one point, I was technically allowed to return ‘home’ to Michigan, but it was a big gamble. I didn’t know if I would be allowed back to the U.K., so we decided not to take our chances.”
For a long time, the pandemic and resulting lockdowns in England weighed heavily on her typically optimistic outlook.
“Being here for all that had me down for a bit,” she said.
Then something new and exciting happened. It was an experience that thawed the chill that seemed to put her life on ice for a time. It was the push she needed to feel some forward momentum return to her story.
“I finally got an interview for my dream job,” she said, “and I got the job!”
♦ Act II ♦
Hired as the social media manager for U.K. Home Fragrances Business, Courtney felt renewed by the professional milestone. Her responsibilities there tapped into the communications talent she developed as an undergrad at SVSU, and it allowed her to connect with people in a way that seemed impossible for much of the pandemic.
Focusing on her new job also helped her better cope with the anxieties of a delayed wedding and a family she wanted badly to see again soon.
Technology helped too.
“Every year, it’s a big deal in my family for one person to sit on my grandpa’s lap and read ‘The Night Before Christmas’ to the family on Christmas Eve night,” she said. “This year, I was able to do that over Zoom. I miss my family and friends so much, but I couldn’t imagine doing any of this just decades ago without social media as a way to stay in touch.”
And in her new home, Courtney was grateful that – if she had to be restricted in her adventures during the pandemic – at least she was free to experience it all with the man of her dreams.
“I’m constantly being wooed by Jason,” she said. “He’s such a helpless romantic. Just today, he picked me up from work with flowers, sushi, and our dog in a bow tie.”
♦ Epilogue ♦
In the English port town where the Mayflower once launched toward uncharted territory across the Atlantic, an American woman is waiting for a chance to explore what’s right beyond her window. It’s 2021, and she’s smiling. Because she knows.
It’s time to turn the page.